#12: Jayson Williams

#12: Jayson Williams

So much of the Nets’ identity revolves around the couldas.

Many of the players listed thus far barely scratched the surface of their assumed potential. Whether injury, carelessness, cocaine, or whoop-de-damn-doism, the franchise’s history is littered with high draft picks, underwhelming overall production, and careers cut short by fate (and “Asher Roth“).

Nenad. DC. Kenny. Pearl. Marbury. KVH. Micheal Ray. More unfulfilled-potential guys to come in the later weeks (I’m sure you can guess a few).

And Jayson.

In his case, it was out of his hands; that horrific collision with Stephon Marbury happened so fast. Before that moment, Jayson was a very talented player, one that didn’t really get a chance to show off that talent until his sixth year in the league. Jayson was extraordinarily strong, often saying he could out-bench anyone in the league (except Kevin Willis), and had the Dwight Howard shoulders before Dwight Howard had the Dwight Howard shoulders.

But just as importantly, he was loads of fun. Thinking about Jayson made me revisit his “autobiography,” Loose Balls. (“Autobiography” is in quotations because the book, like most others written by athletes, was co-written “with Steve Friedman,” which essentially means Jayson probably scribbled some nonsense and Friedman edited it down to a palatable level. But I digress.)

I love that book. It’s also one of the first basketball books I’d ever read cover-to-cover. Maybe it’s the adolescent in me talking, but I was excited to read a basketball player’s take on sex, drugs, racism, and everything else that goes into being rich and famous for your athletic prowess. But even after rereading it, it’s still fantastic, even though Jayson isn’t the most eloquent writer (which only makes me wonder how stilted the language was before Steve got to it).

Here’s one of his many stories:

I came out of the game, and Yinka (Dare), who was on the bench, asked me, “Jay-son” — he always called me Jay-son, like it was two words — “what does the ‘C’ on Christian Laettner’s jersey stand for?”

I’m thinking, Damn, Yinka Dare should know that the “C” on Christian Laettner’s jersey stands for — it’s for “Captain,” everybody knows that. But I didn’t say anything. I just looked over at him and thought, Let me figure this brother out.

So I say, “Yinka, what do you think the ‘C’ on Christian Laettner’s jersey stands for?”

He looks over at Laettner, who’s a white guy, and he looks back at me, and Yinka goes, “‘Caucasian’?”

We’re losing, so I can’t be laughing on the bench. I put my head down, got a towel over my face. And then Benoit Benjamin, another NBA genius on the Nets’ bench, looks over at me and he says, “Wooo, child. That Yinka Dare sure is silly, isn’t he? Everyone knows ‘caucasian’ starts with a ‘k’.”

There’s a few others, including Chris Morris asking a pianist to “play some Picasso,” and a particularly graphic story about assistant coach Clifford Ray and thunder, lightning, and rain, but I’ll let you find those yourself.

Jayson wasn’t just a writer, though. He was one of the most tenacious rebounders of his era, a guy that chased down offensive boards with reckless abandon. In his final full season — his only one as a starter, really — Jayson averaged 6.8 offensive rebounds per game, leading the NBA by a wide margin in offensive rebounding percentage and ranking second to Dennis Rodman in total rebounding percentage. In that season, Jayson actually snared more offensive rebounds (443) than defensive (440).

Also in that season, Jayson ranked second in the NBA in offensive rating to John Stockton, producing 121 points per 100 possessions. That number remains an all-time Nets record.

I won’t dwell on Jayson’s career-ending injury, nor on the fact that he’s currently serving a prison sentence for accidentally killing his limo driver. (Yup, I really did just gloss over it that fast.) But imagine he’d recovered 100% from injury in time for, say, the 2000-2001 season. The Nets still get Kidd, still draft K-Mart, and complement those two with Kittles, Van Horn, and Jayson. That doesn’t swing the Finals against the Lakers, but if a couple breaks go the right way, is a victory over the Spurs the year after that farfetched? Remember, the Nets stole Game 2 in San Antonio and were ahead going into the fourth quarter in Game 3 (and in Game 6, but we’ll talk about that colossal disappointment another day). With Jayson Williams grabbing every offensive board in sight, extended possessions with Jason Kidd at the helm can only yield positive results.

Unfortunately, we’ll never know what difference he could have made. He, like so many others to don a Nets uniform, didn’t get a chance to tell his full story. But save the physical pain of its end (and the whole “negligently-killing-your-driver” thing), I’d bet 90% of NBA players would take Jayson’s career over their own.